Irish Examiner View: Ireland’s role in EU vaccine access policy

Thirty-one  private consultancies were employed to lobby the European Commission on the pharmaceutical industry’s behalf
Irish Examiner View: Ireland’s role in EU vaccine access policy

Ireland followed general EU policy to form the firmest resistance to radical plans to waive intellectual property rights which would potentially have given poorer countries better access to vaccines.

Ireland is rightly proud of the contribution made by its scientists to the world’s sum of knowledge and the global quest for safety, security, and stability. Just this week Science Foundation Ireland has been hymning the achievements of 5,700 SFI-supported international academic research partnerships traversing 84 countries and a further 1,500 collaborations with industrial enterprises overseas.

That’s a lot of brainpower at work and underlines our nation’s achievements in punching above our weight when funding is being handed out. 

As SFI’s Ciarán Seoighe notes: “We are in the upper echelons of European countries when it comes to our success rate. One of the things we are seeing now is the mission-oriented approach in Europe. We all have the same problems relating to climate, health, and so on, and this approach will help us to pool our knowledge and research talent to find solutions to them.”

It is true that the challenges are common. True, also, that for every high there is a low. And it is disappointing to note criticism of Ireland’s position on widening vaccine access during the Covid pandemic arising from an investigation by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and Politico.

They said Ireland, following general EU policy, helped form the firmest resistance to radical plans to waive intellectual property rights which would potentially have given poorer countries better access to vaccines. The calls for a change were led by India and Brazil and supported by the US but fell on stony ground within the EU following, according to the report, lobbying from pharmaceutical companies to “water them down”.

“Germany was a huge driving force behind the EU’s stance — its total opposition to a waiver was consistently backed by countries including Ireland, Sweden, and Denmark at the trade policy committee,” it states. “These three countries also house significant pharmaceutical industries: Ireland is the largest net exporter in the EU of pharmaceutical products.” The journalists found at least 31 private consultancies were employed to lobby the European Commission on the industry’s behalf.

While there is much we still do not know about the environment and context in which decisions were made by companies and governments at the height of the crisis, it remains inevitable that information will emerge in a haphazard fashion relying on the activities of campaigners, reporters, and whistleblowers.

One million lives

Last week, mathematical models drawn from 152 countries emerged which estimated that more than 1m lives might have been saved if Covid-19 vaccines had been shared more equitably with low-income countries in 2021.

Nearly half the world’s population has received at least two inoculations and in many advanced nations, groups considered at risk are on their third and fourth dose, but in some poor countries less than 2% of the population has been immunised. Vaccine surpluses exist. Simultaneously, so does shortage of supply. The neglected truth is that as long as vaccination rates are uneven, the potential for an emergent variant remains, carrying with it potential economic dislocation that, as we are now experiencing, can produce financial chaos.

As we wrote nearly two years ago, in addition to the moral imperative, ensuring fairer access and greater distribution of Covid-19 vaccines is in our financial and broader self-interest. That lesson may need further reinforcement before a fresh toll is taken of the world’s economies.

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